The Justice Secretary Liz Truss has just given her first major policy speech on prison reform to launch the Ministry of Justice’s new White Paper.
Arguably her first goal was to restore a sense of purpose and direction, following some early mis-steps, including an uncertain performance at the Justice Select Committee in the Summer (where she appeared to pour cold water on her predecessor’s agenda) and a conference speech, which lacked any substantial policy content. In politics, momentum is everything and Truss will have been keen to regain some today.
Has she succeeded?
The big headline announcement – 2,000 additional prison staff – will be universally welcomed across the criminal justice sector. Though the public will generally struggle to ever get excited about additional resources for our prisons, the commitment from the Ministry of Justice today is urgently needed. Safety within prisons has been deteriorating steadily since 2010 – evidenced by rising suicides, record numbers of assaults and murders – fuelled by a combination of staff shortages, overcrowding and a rising level of violence fuelled by the use of legal highs.
In a typically thoughtful and forthright piece in Today’s Times, Danny Kruger argues that it is the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), rather than lack of funding, that is primarily to blame for this crisis, by acting as a roadblock to reform. He is right to point out problems with both the culture and skills of the prison workforce, but reforms simply won’t be achievable until prisons are safe, stable places where people are able to live and work free from fear. Hence the need for additional staff, even if that is only a short-term fix.
Truss has been understandably keen to wrap the commitment of more money/ staff in a wider package of reforms. The content of her speech and White Paper suggests she has only partially been successful.
In truth, much of the best content is recycled from David Cameron’s excellent speech in February 2016. Greater autonomy for prison governors; a ‘teach-first’-style scheme to recruit a new generation of prison leaders; holding prisons to account with better data to enable real transparency; these were all set out by the former PM earlier in the year. Which is no criticism of Truss: they are all good, worthy ideas and it is welcome that they will not be abandoned. We now await further details from the Ministry of Justice as to exactly how they will be taken forwards and rolled out.
Other ideas appear less thought-through. ‘No fly zones’ over prisons to prevent drones from flying drugs over the walls falls into that category. Most people would be baffled by the idea that there are not already ‘no fly zones’ over prisons. Moreover, ministers clearly have no idea how such zones would be enforced. Some announcements simply expose your impotence. Similarly, the commitment (trailed over night) to test all offenders for drug use on entry and exit from prison looks over-briefed. It is unlikely that prisons have either the capability or the resources to do this. It is interesting to note the wording in the White Paper (page 46), which commits to ‘enhancing our drug testing regime, supporting governors to enable drug testing on entry to and exit from prison as part of a more extensive testing programme’.
Over the longer term, Truss’ success will be judged against whether she manages to do better than her predecessors in driving down repeat offending, with reoffending rates having been flat for over a decade. Tackling this will require a serious look at the way Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) and the National Probation Service are managing offenders. In recent months, a series of reports (by the Joint Inspectorate, NAO and the PAC) have highlighted problems with Chris Grayling’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme, including the way results are measured and rewarded.
It will require a commitment to grasp the nettle of sentencing reform, with growing evidence that tough alternatives to custody, like Manchester’s Intensive Community Order and electronic tagging, can be a more effective way to reduce reoffending than short prison sentences.
Most of all, it will require some boldness on devolution. One of the problems with the current system is that whilst many of the levers for reducing reoffending lie locally, it is central government that picks up the cost of imprisonment, meaning local areas have neither the incentive, nor the means to invest in better alternatives to custody and reduce reoffending. The think tank Governup will be launching a report in Manchester on 29 November, which looks at justice devolution in more detail.
Announcing additional resources for staff is a good start: the bigger, more difficult reform decisions are yet to be made.